When Prince Hal utters the pivotal line “I know you all” during his famous monologue at the end of act one, scene two of William Shakespeare’s “1 Henry IV,” he addresses his relationship with his drunken father figure turned fellow bar chum Falstaff.
However, when actor Avery Whitted delivered the line last Friday night at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C., he addressed the audience, claiming to know its members like he knows his Eastcheap pals at Eastcheap, the London street that houses the group’s favorite bar. These lines set the tone for the Folger’s rendition, which, under Rosa Joshi’s direction, begs the audience to question who or what can be truly known.
At its time of publication, “1 Henry IV” was one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. Upper class citizens enjoyed the dramatic political elements while poorer citizens related to the frustratingly lovable Falstaff and his Eastcheap buddies. The Folger Theatre’s production navigates these two worlds with skill and invites audience members to join Prince Hal on his journey from reckless youth to honorable adulthood.
“1 Henry IV” picks up where Richard II ends: Richard’s murder leaves a power vacuum in its wake, and Henry Bolingbroke assumes the throne. Conflict arises when Hotspur, a young member of a powerful political family, breaks ties with Bolingbroke and questions his legitimacy to the throne, sparking a war. Meanwhile, the young Prince Hal shirks his royal duties and instead spends his time with a rowdy bar crowd until realizing his true duties and potential.
Whitted’s Folger Theatre debut is glorious, and he explores Prince Hal’s disingenuous and endearing qualities like a seasoned actor. Particularly, Whitted effectively portrays Prince Hal’s ability to completely transform his emotions depending on the company he keeps. Under his supposed affection for Falstaff lurks a political agenda; Whitted brings both charm and cunning.
Despite Whitted’s likeability, it is Edward Gero’s Falstaff who drives the Folger’s interpretation. Gero is no stranger to the Shakespearian stage, having performed in past productions of “Henry IV” and “King Lear” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. His sheer emotional range reveals his professionalism and experience. Depending on the scene, Gero’s Falstaff can either rouse laughter during humorous misadventures or elicit tears during tender moments with Hal.
While Falstaff is often played only as a lovable and entertaining drunk, Gero adds depth to the role. His Falstaff is simultaneously plagued by an awareness of his own mortality and fueled by an affection for Hal. At the Folger Theatre, Falstaff is the most relatable he’s ever been, and Gero transcends the usual static portrayal of the character’s comedic relief.
Although well-executed, the aesthetic elements of Joshi’s interpretation lack innovation. The sleek, metal columns accented by neon colored rods planted the play in the 21st century, but they’ve been seen before. The prominence of the IV logo, appearing on Bolingbroke’s throne, the stage’s back wall and England’s military uniforms, felt equally cliched and insignificant. While assumedly meant to make a statement, these design elements paled in comparison to the actors’ exciting, nuanced performances and felt hurried and without artistic purpose.
Not all production elements fell flat. Brandon Roe’s sound engineering, which included a blend of military sirens and electronic dance music, served to draw a contrast between the sterile royal court and the rowdy underground scene of Eastcheap. Watching Hotspur and Hal execute U Jonathan Toppo’s fight choreography was like watching two trained dancers. Punches and kicks paired with pulsating rhythms brought energy to a scene that otherwise could have slowed down the play’s momentum and pacing.
At its core, “1 Henry IV” is a play about playing each part society requires or leads us to. Prince Hal plays both an irresponsible young adult and an honorable son. Falstaff assumes the roles of drunk, liar, friend and father. Henry IV acts like a legitimate ruler, and Hotspur pretends to be an experienced warrior. It is a play that proves that relationships are complex exactly because people are rarely who they seem to be.
With an expertly crafted cast and nuanced characterization, the Folger Theatre’s rendition navigates these performative relationships while still delivering the knee slapping comedy that audiences expect from Shakespeare’s “1 Henry IV.”